Saturday, October 15

Real Life Diagnostics: Would You Read On in This YA Fantasy?


Critique By Janice Hardy, @Janice_Hardy

Real Life Diagnostics is a weekly column that studies a snippet of a work in progress for specific issues. Readers are encouraged to send in work with questions, and I diagnose it on the site. It’s part critique, part example, and designed to help the submitter as well as anyone else having a similar problem.

If you're interested in submitting to Real Life Diagnostics, please check out these guidelines.

Submissions currently in the queue: Four

Please Note: As of today, RLD slots are booked through November 12.

This week’s questions:

1. Does this opening work?

2. Are you interested in the main character?

3. Would you read on?

Market/Genre: YA Fantasy

Please note: We have a younger writer with a first novel here, so bear that in mind when commenting. Thanks!

On to the diagnosis…

Original text:

She would pay more attention to the meetings if she weren’t insane.

Edlyn stared at her lap. How long had it been? Seven months? Yes, it had. Seven meetings she had had to suffer through while pretending everything was fine, that her wits were not slowly slipping away. How long would it last? How long before even Zara’s prompts meant nothing to her?

If the voices weren’t clouding her own thoughts she wouldn’t need to be fed lines like a puppet. She was the First Princess of Arleigh, King Basil Kendrick’s eldest and only child. She should have been capable of speaking for herself.

Of course, she no longer trusted herself to speak. So, she kept silent.

Edlyn shifted in her seat at the head of the ornate table. It was brought into Father’s throne room for meetings of particular importance, which was what his advisors had designated this one as. They had ignored tradition and called for this meeting instead of Father himself. It showed a concern that Father hadn’t shared, but he had agreed to it anyway.

Either way, there was a meeting, which meant another hour or more of being on display for the advisors, an object of pity and scorn and outright confusion.

Edlyn twisted her hands. If she could only get by without having to speak—and she might, as the meeting was impromptu—it wouldn’t be as bad.

My Thoughts in Purple:

[She would pay more attention to the meetings if she weren’t insane.] If you cut this line, you’d have more mystery about what was wrong to help hook readers

Edlyn stared at her lap. How long had it been? Seven months? [Yes, it had.] Don’t think you need this, as it slows the pace down a little Seven meetings she had had to suffer through while pretending everything was fine, that her wits were not slowly slipping away. [How long would it last? How long before even Zara’s prompts meant nothing to her?] I like the ideas here, but there are a lot of questions in this paragraph, so perhaps find a way to say this without it being a question?

[If the voices weren’t clouding her own thoughts she wouldn’t need to be fed lines like a puppet.] It might be nice to see this happen. That way, you can cut the previous questions and still get the information across She was the First Princess of Arleigh, King Basil Kendrick’s eldest and only child. She should have been capable of speaking for herself.

Of course, she no longer trusted herself to speak. [So, she kept silent.] It might be stronger without this. It’s clear she’s staying silent

Edlyn shifted in her seat at the head of the ornate table. It was brought into Father’s throne room for meetings of particular importance, which was what his advisors had designated this one as. They had ignored tradition and called for this meeting instead of Father himself. It showed a concern that Father hadn’t shared, but he had agreed to it anyway. This paragraph feels a little clunky, but I like the ideas here. Perhaps put the worry more in her POV? How is she feeling about this?

Either way, there was a meeting, which meant another hour or more of being on display for the advisors, an object of pity and scorn and outright confusion. Perhaps take the emotions here, and show them in how she thinks about the meeting in the previous paragraph

Edlyn twisted her hands. If she could only get by without having to speak—and she might, as the meeting was impromptu—it wouldn’t be as bad. Since there’s no clear threat yet, this doesn’t have as much impact as it could. It basically repeats what she’s already said

The questions:

1. Does this opening work?


Almost (readers chime in here). I like the setup and the fear, and it’s clear that there’s more going on and Edlyn has a problem (and I’d guess it’s not that she’s crazy, which is fun). These are all strong pieces for an opening scene, but it’s not quite hooking me yet because there’s nothing going on. They’re at a meeting and she’s scared to speak, but it’s all internal with no physical actions occurring.

I’d suggest dramatizing what you describe and giving Edlyn something tangible to worry about to get all her fears up front and active. Perhaps show the meeting and how people expect her to speak and Zara has to feed her prompts. Have Edlyn grow more and more nervous by how the advisors in the room react to this. Let readers see how scared she is about having to speak and being put in a position where the crazy might come out. You also might consider showing one of those voices in her head so we see what she’s up against. It could be fun to see her struggling with the very insanity she’s worried about.

(Here’s more on the difference between good and bad setup)

2. Are you interested in the main character?

Yes. A young woman fearing she’s insane, who has what (I imagine) is an important political role, has a lot of inherent conflict to her life. She seems composed and scared, strong and vulnerable, and someone who is in over her head and trying not to ruin everything and embarrass herself. That’s very relatable as a teen. It’s also a character I can easily root for.

(Here’s more on making critical character traits part of the plot)

3. Would you read on?

I would give it a few more pages to see where it was going. I’m intrigued by Edlyn’s problem and curious what is actually happening to her. Right now I’m feeling a little detached from Edlyn, so if that continued I’d probably put it down, but if it got more in her head and the action picked up, I’d stick with it. If the cover copy really hooked me, I’d likely give it a chapter or so to get going.

I’d suggest getting a little more in her head and showing the fear she has. Perhaps hint at past failures, or repercussions if she messes up here. I can see there’s a problem, but I don’t yet know what the stakes are if she speaks and sounds crazy. Aside from “not speaking” she has no goal. That can be enough, if I see the stakes and the conflict of staying silent.

The moment when she realizes the advisors called the meeting and not her father is a great opportunity to show her thoughts and what she’s thinking, as this meeting is different and something she can wonder about (and worry about what it means). Something different gives you as the author an chance to do some worldbuilding and show readers what’s different in a natural way without infodumping.

(Here’s more on crafting natural-sounding internalization)

Overall, this is off to a good start, and I think a few tweaks to bring out what’s already here would turn this into a compelling opening. It feels like a good starting point with all the right pieces to show Edlyn’s problem and suggest the stakes of her failing.

Thanks to our brave volunteer for submitting this for me to play with. I hope they–and others–find it helpful. I don’t do a full critique on these, (just as it pertains to the questions) and I encourage you to comment and make suggestions of your own. Just remember that these pieces are works in progress (many by new writers), not polished drafts, so be nice and offer constructive feedback.

8 comments:

  1. Thank you so much for your feedback, Janice. You really gave me some good ideas for making the opening more compelling. The suggestion to dramatize what I'm describing was really helpful!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Great insights. I agree with them all.
    Of course, with the starting paragraph gone, the lap line needs an added phrase to put the reader someplace.

    Edlyn stared at her lap, ignoring the jabbering voices that echoed around her in the great hall

    kind of thing

    ReplyDelete
  3. I actually liked the opening line. I laughed, and then wondered if the character had been told she was insane, or if she assigned that label. I immediately wanted to read on.

    I agree with most of the suggestions made, and will just add that perhaps showing the "pity and scorn and outright confusion" by relating what she sees, rather than just stating it, might bring more depth.

    I also wanted to know who Zara is, and felt that identification needed to happen.

    If the text is presented in blocks of awareness, as it often is for people with relating difficulties, you might be able to create an interesting perspective, without telling about anything. Guess I should explain what I mean... Blocks of perspective is when the person can only 'see' certain elements of what's happening around them at one time, each micro-event becomes all, and the person is easily startled by things outside that event. The thing they are singularly observing is their entire world, for the seconds or minutes they observe it.

    We have no comparison to how Edlyn functions outside these meetings, so we've no idea of the scope of her 'madness' or non-madness. Perhaps showing her reflecting on a place where she's not feeling insane or hearing voices? Perhaps showing why these meetings, in particular, are so distressing?

    All in all, a good start and an excellent voice to the main character -- I can already envision her, so good job with that!

    Best of luck to you...

    ReplyDelete
  4. As it stands right now, I wouldn't read on. I don't feel any connection to the character; I don't get any sense of what she actually feels.

    I would suggest backing the story up a tiny bit. What was Edwin doing prior to the meeting? We've been told the meeting is impromptu, so what did activity did it interrupt? You have to be careful about how you introduce your characters. Most readers will assume we're seeing them in their default state. I don't want to spend a whole book with someone who is anxious and constantly questioning herself. It's exhausting. If I see her being happy first, then the meeting causes her stress, I can empathize with that.

    Janice made good suggestions about dramaticizing the scene, which I agree with. Bring in more of Edlyn's feelings so the reader can connect with her.

    ReplyDelete
  5. I'm intrigued, and that's half the battle. I'll agree with all the comments that come before mine. Yes, this needs to go somewhere, so more pages like this won't work, but I like the voice and am fascinated by her circumstances and thoughts. Now something needs to happen.

    I'm reserving judgment on the opening line because my gut says it's MAYBE important to her voice. It could even appear later where it'd take on more importance as sarcasm, if that's desired. Regardless, hold on to that voice and give her a good story. This has lots of potential!

    ReplyDelete
  6. While the above comments are correct, my reaction was different. I must say that the first sentence grabbed me and slung me through the rest of the submission. This piece might be full of small mistakes, there is nothing that can't be learned. What can't be learned as easily this author already has,he has a voice.
    What was good: The submission stayed on track and didn't roam around describing furniture. It intrigued, I couldn't imagine what meetings and insanity had that hooked them together and that was original. I think this is a great start.
    My advice? Write, write, write. And learn your craft. Read the articles at the top of the left column of this website. Read the books on structure (Larry Brooks, Robert McKee) and plotting (James Scott Bell) and on screen-writing (because it works for written works as well). Read what literary agents say (books by Donald Maas and Sol Stein). Don't waste your time on self-agrandizing works like On Writing by Steven King. Do read the work of great authors because there are so many things you can learn. Do read King's "It" and "Misery". Read!
    Best of luck.

    ReplyDelete
  7. I enjoyed this young writer's style and I'm impressed with the structure of sentences and thought. Like Brian suggested, keep studying and writing.

    ReplyDelete
  8. Great submission! I, too, liked the opening line, but it's voice is slightly different to the following paragraph. The humour isn't quite as strong.

    The madness idea is really interesting, and I can imagine some great opportunities for dramatising (she half-starts a sentence, for example, and has to cut herself off, insults random politician...). On the whole it just needs some attention to rhythm and polish. Keep writing! :)

    ReplyDelete